About This Guide
Decennial censuses are those issued every ten years by the US federal government's Census Bureau that more currently cover population and housing statistics. While these censuses originally included various censuses of agriculture, economics, etc., this research guide provides a general overview focusing on those decennial censuses for population and housing. For questions or further assistance with these resources, contact Christine Fletcher (662-325-0008), the Government Documents and Microforms Reference Desk on the second floor of the Library or use our Ask A Librarian service. Note that this guide covers only those statistical volumes released after census data has been compiled. This guide does not cover those older documents that list census participants by name, which are commonly used for tracking family histories. Such documents are released by the National Archives and Records Administration and are kept in MSU Libraries Special Collections Department.
A census is simply a count of a population of a country as of a specified date. The U.S. decennial census was established in 1790 as part of a constitutional mandate to periodically reapportion state representation in the House of Representatives based on state population, and thus the United States was the first country to institute a periodic census. The decennial census proved to be an efficient mechanism for apportionment and reapportionment of political power as more states were incorporated into the union. State and local governments also began to rely on the census to determine their own legislative representation and districting. Many questions on the decennial census are mandated by federal law, and questions will change over time to reflect changes in data needs and national interests. For example, more current census questionnaires no longer ask about household use of electric lights and television ownership, but they do ask about foster children and stepchildren, the presence of solar heat in the home, and most recently, about grandparents as primary caregivers of children. More than just a head count, the decennial census provides us with a decennial snapshot of demographic, social and economic characteristics.